by Mike Ratliff
How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word. (Psalms 119:9-16 ESV)
I expected some backlash when I posted Homosexuality is Sin the other day. One of the most vociferous responses came from an atheist. He quoted passages from Leviticus and tried to use human reasoning to show that it made no sense. I attempted to tell him, after explaining the point of the post, that an unregenerate person cannot read and understand God’s Word correctly. One thing that struck me though was how similar his reasoning concerning God’s Word was to the folks here, here, and here. The main difference of course was that this fellow does not believe in God and could not understand that Christians are New Creations by the Grace of God. However, that same rejection of God’s Word as being authoritative as well as absolute truth was very apparent, just more pronounced.
It is vital for Christians to know God’s Word, to love its precepts so much that they hide it in their hearts so they will never forget it. Why? This is the foundation of discernment. God gives the gift of discernment to His people. Some have more than others of course, but we all must learn to develop it and it begins by knowing and understanding God’s Word. Why? God’s Word is our plumb line. All Christians have a right and duty, not only to learn from the church’s heritage of faith, but also to interpret Scripture for themselves. The Roman Catholic Church had forbid this very thing, which resulted in the Protestant Reformation. The Church at Rome’s reason for doing this was a fear that people easily misinterpret the Scriptures. This is a legitimate fear. The Westminster Confession of Faith agrees that “All things in Scripture are not alike in plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all,” but it also states clearly the authority of individual believers to read the Bible for themselves: “not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding” of the Scriptures. What are these “ordinary means?”
These “ordinary means” begin with the proper understanding of what God’s Word is, where it came from, et cetera. The Bible is inspired by God, and its words continue to be God’s words, but the Bible is also the product of human writers. This understanding is vital for the Christian. No allegorizing or other fanciful method that ignores the original writer’s expressed meaning can be appropriate.
Each book of the Bible was written in a way that could be understood by the readers to whom it was addressed, not in code. I know many who refuse to accept this as they point to the books of Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation. They contend that the heavy use of symbolism in those books require them to “decode” them. However, the main thrust in these prophetic books is always clear, even if the details are clouded. Our understanding of any book in the Bible includes the words used, the historic background, and the cultural conventions of the writer and his readers. When we understand these things then we are well on the way to grasping the thoughts that are being conveyed. There is another aspect of God’s Word, however, which is the spiritual understanding. This is the Christian discerning the reality of God, His ways with His people, His present will, and one’s own relationship to Him. This spiritual understanding will not reach the Christian from the text until God removes the veil from his or her heart. When God does this then the Christian is able to share the writer’s own passion for God (1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 3:16). I have learned to pray for God’s Spirit to generate this passion in me as He shows me God in the text (Psalm 119:18,19,26,27,33,34,73,125,169; Ephesians 1:17-19; Ephesians 3:16-19).
Each book in God’s Word took its form at a particular time in the process of His revelation of grace. This is also a vital ingredient in the proper interpretation of the text. For instance, the psalms model the godly heart in every age, but they also express its prayers and praises in terms of the realities of the life of grace before the advent of Christ. We see this in references to the ceremonial law, the sacrificial system, and the special role of Israel as a theocratic kingdom.
Each book proceeded from the same divine mind, so the teaching of the Bible’s sixty-six books is complementary and consistent. I know of many Christian leaders who doubt that what I just wrote is true. I know of some professing Christians who comment here at times who reveal that they doubt it as well. If we find ourselves in this place of doubt then the fault is in us, not in Scripture. There are no contradictions in Scripture. I know that there are some who specialize in revealing supposed contradictions, but not one has ever stood in light of proper Biblical exegesis. Scripture interprets Scripture. This sound principle of interpreting Scripture is sometimes called the analogy of Scripture, or the analogy of faith.
Each book exhibits unchanging truth about God, the world, and His will for people, applied to and illustrated by particular situations. The final stage of proper biblical interpretation is to reapply these truths to our own life situations; this is the way to discern what God in Scripture is saying to us at this moment. For example, in 2 Kings 22:8-13 we read of Josiah’s realization of God’s wrath at Judah’s failure to observe His Law. Another example is the Lord Jesus’ reasoning from Genesis 2:24 that we read in Matthew 19:4-6. Lastly, we read in Romans 4:1-8 of Paul’s use of Genesis 15:6 and Psalm 32:1,2 to show the reality of present righteousness by faith.
No meaning may be read into or imposed on Scripture that cannot with certainty be read out of Scripture—shown, that is, to be unambiguously expressed by one or more of the human writers. Careful and prayerful observance of these rules is a mark of every Christian who is “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
The weakness and apostasy we are seeing the Church in our day is directly attributable to an incredible lack of biblical discernment. Doctrinal truth is either ignored or not known. These conditions arose when relativism invaded the church. This caused a de-emphasis of proper Bible study from the top down in the churches compromised by it. Strong Churches are doctrinally sound and this happens when God Word is properly taught and then studied by the believers within. This proper handling of God’s Word must be according to these guidelines which are the “ordinary means” through which God’s people become solidly grounded in God’s Word.
Soli Deo Gloria
This post was developed from an article in the Reformation Study Bible titled “Understanding the Word of God” p.844.